We look at whether golf course vandalism has worsened over lockdown and speak to those who have been directly affected by the aftermath.
The Rise Of Golf Course Vandalism
Bad things happen, lots of bad things. Golf course vandalism sits nowhere near the top of the list, but that doesn’t stop photos of deep tyre tracks on fairways and greens cutting to the heart of every golfer. Nobody has been hurt, but for whatever reason, or perhaps no reason, somebody has decided to wilfully harm our sacred turf.
Maybe it’s a false perception generated by lockdown and excessive time on social media, but there seems to have been more of it of late and the images are always distressing. All sorts of unprintable names are directed at the perpetrators, but when you look at what humankind has done throughout history, a few bored youths or someone with an axe to grind damaging a golf course sadly comes as no great surprise.
Professional events have even fallen victim. In the 1983 Open at Birkdale, the words ‘Dennis Kelly is innocent’ were gouged into one of the greens, and four greens were damaged overnight at Hilversum Golf Club in the Netherlands the day before the 2011 KLM Open.
The featured image on this piece comes from a New Year’s Day tweet by a gentleman called Michael Marra. It’s actually a municipal course in Dundee called Camperdown that the local council voted 14-13 to close a year ago as part of ‘essential cuts’. Marra was one of the 13 to vote against closure.
“I was out running and cut through the park and it was sitting there,” he reflects. “Quite a sad sight really. But my point in sending the tweet was that it’s kind of emblematic of what’s happened to the course. When we looked at the proposals to close it, there was no clear indication of what it would cost to maintain it when it wasn’t a golf course. The reality is that it’s not being maintained in any fit state at the moment, as evidenced by that photograph.
“I wrote to the chief executive right at the start of the pandemic and said, ‘We’re only a few weeks closed – can we have a reprieve?’ I was suggesting that, if it’s literally the only game in town, here was an opportunity to actually introduce new people to golf. But that was just knocked back because the savings had already been counted.”
But why concern ourselves with vandalism on a closed golf course when similar things are going on at courses still very much alive? It’s what Marra says next that hints at a potential link between the apparent pandemic-inspired proliferation of golf course vandalism and a burnt-out car in an ex-bunker: “If the decision is to return this piece of land to the wild, it needs to be done in a responsible way, and that costs money as well. My view was that the golfers policed this park for the public by walking along it and being present.”
Is lockdown a factor?
Most course vandalism takes place under cover of darkness, but has lockdown-induced inactivity perhaps opened the door to easier access for those so inclined? An incident involving motorbikes at Walton Heath during the first lockdown certainly took place in broad daylight.
Golfers have not been out ‘policing’ their courses simply by their presence, as Marra puts it. Indeed, half the cases highlighted in our panel occurred during lockdowns, along with the most recent one to come to my attention at Buxton and High Peak in Derbyshire, where three 4x4s caused extensive damage to two fairways in January.
“It’s only by luck really that they’ve not touched two of the greens,” head greenkeeper, Steve Norton, tells me. “We had a bridleway that went up and over the course, and when it was a bridleway we didn’t have any problems. They changed it to a BOAT (Byway Open to All Traffic) in their wisdom a few years ago, which has created chaos.”
Norton was alerted by a neighbour and actually got there before the police to witness the culprits exiting the course. “I followed them as far as I could,” he tells me, “and then decided, ‘What am I doing? I’m 52 following three Land Rovers that could be full of anybody!’ Ten to 15 years ago, I might have done – but not now!” Very wise.
Norton explains that because the vehicles took great lumps of turf out, it actually made it possible to collect and replace much of it. But with all other greens staff furloughed, he faced at least a 60-hour week sorting it out alone, with the time of year and Peak District climate meaning that the scarring will likely be visible until May or June. Five minutes of so-called fun for some; months of consequences for others.
Counting the cost
Presumably, though, insurance covers such incidents? Yes, but with policy excesses and the effect on future premiums to consider, it’s not always worthwhile. “You’ve just got to bite the bullet on it,” Norton laments. “There are a lot of golf clubs in this area at the moment suffering the same. It’s definitely more prevalent.”
David Miller, head of sport for Bluefin Sport insurers, says that course vandalism actually accounts for a tiny percentage of claims from its 700+ golf club clients: “In terms of volume, it’s probably only 1.5% of our clients claiming for golf course damage over a three-year period. I’ll see a headline that says something like, ‘Local golf club devastated by vandals’, and think, ‘Oh no, they’re a client of mine.’ I’ll phone the golf club next day to say, ‘How can I help?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s okay, we’re hoping the greenkeepers can fix it tomorrow.’”
It seems that greenkeeping teams will typically go above and beyond to remedy things as best they can in-house so such incidents rarely result in an insurance claim.
“The bigger vandalism claims tend to be down to someone who knows what they’re doing,” Miller continues, referring to planned rather than spontaneous acts. “They put chemicals down on the greens and know that’s going to be a nightmare for the greenkeeping team to resolve. Quite often, when there’s damage to a golf course, it’s the business interruption claim that can be greater. The actual damage might be something like £10,000 but the claim ends up being much, much higher.”
That interruption might involve having to reduce green fees for a while, or losing custom if greens are out of play. And it is, of course, the greens that are of greatest concern. Fairways can be roped off while they heal, but for greenkeepers, it must be truly heartbreaking to see years of hard work on golf’s most-prized surfaces undone overnight.
Vulnerable to attack
When a vandal struck highly renowned Western Gailes the night before an Ayrshire Winter Golf Association meeting in November 2019, it was the greens to which he turned his attention with a pitchfork, attacking four on the course and a newly laid chipping green.
“I was actually due to be teeing off first, so I was here really, really early,” club manager and secretary, Douglas Zuill, tells me. “The course manager was waiting for me, and when we walked up to the 1st, I thought, ‘Oh my word! This will take some time to get back to normal.’ But the guys did a really good job. Did it affect playability? Not significantly, but for a month or so, it wasn’t a good look.”
That day, they had to put two temporary greens in play, but Zuill is grateful that the vandal or vandals – CCTV captured one or perhaps two people heading out with torches – didn’t do a slightly more thorough job. “When he was digging these holes, he didn’t actually throw the turf away, so they were able to find it lying around the greens. If he’d flicked it away into the rough, it would have been far worse.
“We went up there with the course manager and a couple of policemen and the guys were actually down on their hands and knees putting the turf back in place.”
I ask if he feels golf clubs can do anything to guard against this kind of thing. “We’ve beefed up the security exponentially in the clubhouse,” Zuill explains, “but out on the course, it’s unprotectable really.” The sad fact is that golf courses are vulnerable to those who would do them harm, whether simply for kicks or as a result of a specific grudge.
Perhaps the accessibility of instant news and dramatic photos on social media has made it seem more prevalent these days. Or maybe the vulnerability of our courses means that it always was, and always will be, a problem – a problem exacerbated by lockdowns.
Either way, clubs that have suffered greatly on this front should know that their pain is shared and felt by everyone who loves this game, along with the overwhelming majority of decent folk who don’t.